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Monday, September 20, 2010

CLASSIC TRIP - San Francisco, California 1998, Part 2


See Part 1 of this trip here.

Finally, we were ready to go over to Alcatraz. The Red and White Fleet provides transportation over to the island. The full price of $11 for adults includes a voucher for an audio tour when you get there (there are also discounted tickets available if you don't want the audio tour).  (The price is now $26 and service is provided by Alcatraz Cruises - Ed)

The ride over was uneventful. The boat does make a complete circuit of the island before docking giving you great views of the entire island.

Once on the island, rangers greet you and give a brief history of the island before leading you up to the cell house. You can also skip this if you want and head up by yourself.

We had our lunch at the dock (the only spot on the island where you are allowed to eat or smoke) and then headed up.

The buildings down at the dock date back to 1857 when the island was a fort erected to protect California's gold fields. There are some interesting tunnels behind the bookstore that meander through the old basements here. Most are roped off except a series of tunnels that lead to a small museum display.

The tunnels also lead to an alternate path up to the cell house that, to us, was more interesting than the more heavily used path. Here you can see much more of the old military barracks ant the guardhouse/sally port.

Up at the top of the hill you can see California's oldest lighthouse location (still in operation, current lighthouse dates to 1909) and the ruins of the warden's house which burned down in 1971. Then you enter the cell house.

Entering the cell house, you pick up a walkman style tape player with headphones. Then you proceed into the cell block to a point where you are told to turn it on. The tour itself is fascinating, conducted (on the tape) by a former guard and former inmates.

You see the cells... Al Capone's former cell, Robert Stroud's (the birdman) cell, the cells where convicts tunneled their way out, isolation cells, and others where rioting inmates herded in hostages and shot them. You can enter some regular and isolation cells to get a feeling of what it was like.

You also visit the dining area and the library, where the worst Alcatraz riot originated from.

Apart from the tour, you can visit the prison hospital, the military morgue, the recreation yard, and paths around the island where many, many flowers bloom (see picture).

After the tour you can meet former inmates who have wrote books about Alcatraz in the bookstore. Today's guest was Jim Quillen who was sent here for kidnaping about half a century ago. He is also one of the voices you here on the audio tour.

We rode the boat back with Mr. Quillen which led to an interesting point where Tim was allowed (for the only time in his life, we hope) to take candy from a convicted kidnapper! We talked with Mr. Quillen on the way back, who seems like he's made peace with his past and insists on being called FORMER prisoner of Alcatraz (when Tim asked if he was a prisoner here), and got some more stories in between book signings for other passengers.


After Alcatraz, although still too early for dinner, Letty didn't feel like going back to the motel and going right back out for dinner. To pass the time, we took Muni's #39 bus up to the Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill.

This famous SF landmark was given to the city as a tribute to it's firefighters after the big quake and fire of 1906 by a wealthy woman of the time. The tower is shaped like a fire hose nozzle and the views from here are exceptional but the tower itself has no access for wheelchairs so we were stuck at the bottom of the hill. Thumbs down to the city for not installing a ramp here (it would be very easy to put one on the west side of the tower).

The view from the bottom is still on top of the hill and is spectacular. This landmark has a very small parking lot and waits of over an hour are commonplace on weekends for a spot to park. Taking Muni's #39 avoid much of this wait and the hassle of finding a spot. Thumbs down to all the impatient drivers who almost run you down trying to cut in front of everybody else who waits patiently but thumbs up to the view.

Heading back down the hill, the #39 bus takes you to North Beach, one of SF's best neighborhoods for fun. Here you will find many nightclubs, bars, shows, and great Italian restaurants.

This is one of the best spots for dinner in SF so we decided to see what we can find here. We have gone to Capp's Corner (on Green and Powell, next door to Club Fugazi-Beach Blanket Babylon) many times in the past (thumbs up) but wanted to try something different on this trip.

Figaro Ristorante Italiano owner Luigi Dominici was standing at his front door giving us mouth-watering descriptions of the food within, so we decided to put him to the test. We were not disappointed.

Letty had the angel hair pasta with prosciuto, I had the spinach ravioli with tomato cream sauce, and Tim had the penne with marinara. An order of polenta with mushrooms for antipasti started us off along with the freshly baked sourdough bread with olive oil. Delicious, plus great service. Figaro, at 441 Columbus Street (at Vallejo) gets a big thumbs up from us.

After dinner we headed up Columbus a couple of doors for desert at Stella's Italian Pastries. Washed down with some delicious coffee, we had some napoleons, cheesecake, and Italian donuts. We died and went to heaven that night (see picture) so another big thumbs up here.

We caught Muni's #15 bus back to the Wharf where we transferred to the #42 back to our motel. On the way in we bought a bottle of wine to settle down with before turning in.


After a good night's sleep, we headed up Lombard in search of breakfast. Today we went to Mel's Drive In, famous as the drive-in from American Graffiti (not filmed at this location though). Although Mel's has cashed in on the diner craze, it is an authentic one (over 30 years) as opposed to the recreations you see at most diners.

Breakfast was good and basic and Mel's was crowded but fun. Thumbs up.

Lunch would be about the time we flew home so instead of expensive airport food we bought some Balance bars at the GNC store on Chestnut before heading out.

Back at the motel we packed, and feeling confident from the trip so far, decided to forgo the shuttle and take public transit back to the airport.


We waited...and waited...for Muni's #42 bus to take us to the BART station. We were noticed that about every other #30 bus (which also goes to a BART station) was accessible despite being listed as not and was also coming by every couple of minute. So we switched and walked up one block to the #30 stop and caught it to BART.

At the BART station, we almost missed the train because we didn't know that the Fremont bound (and OAK airport) train didn't run this way on Sundays. Luckily someone told us at the last minute and we climbed aboard. This made a transfer to another train in Oakland necessary after an interesting trip under the bay (which makes your ears pop).

At the Coliseum/Oakland Airport BART station, we had a choice of taking AC Transit's number 58 bus or the AirBART shuttle to the airport. We chose AirBART. We chose wrong...

The first AirBART bus shows up...and does not have a wheelchair ramp. The bus driver assures me that SOME of the AirBART buses do have lifts, and to just wait. At this time, Letty is starting to be concerned that we are running out of time and may miss our flight. The tickets for AirBART (which must be purchased in advance via a machine in the station) has soaked up the last of our spare change so it's either walk or wait. A recheck of our flight tickets lets us find out that our flight leaves at 2:55 (we thought it was 2:00), so with 55 minutes gained, we decide to wait.

15 minutes later (AirBART is supposed to run every 7-10 minutes) an unmarked, white shuttle van pulls up which does have a lift. A handwritten note in the side window says "Airbart". I ask the driver if this is indeed the AirBART shuttle and she says yes so before any passengers board I tell here that my son needs to board in a wheelchair. She says ok...just wait a minute.

After loading my wife and about 10 other passengers, the driver comes to me and tells me I should wait for another bus because this one is full. At this point my cork, holding back much pressure already, pops. I, in no way gently, inform her that is why I #@%! told you before you started loading passengers on board about my son and to either get us on board or look for a new job.

That bit of persuasion seemed to do the trick and we were finally on board (after we had to show the driver how the lift worked) and made it to the airport 30 minutes before departure. AirBART gets a very big thumbs time either AC Transit (who seemed to have their act together much better) or a shuttle van.

The flight home was as good as the first with just a minor delay (7 minutes) out of Oakland because the plane's radio wouldn't come on. It was fixed immediately (the pilot said otherwise we would have to get another plane) and we were on our way home after a very nice weekend...AirBART notwithstanding!

Copyright 1998 - Darryl Musick

Friday, September 17, 2010

CLASSIC TRIP - San Francisco, California 1998, Part 1

We're going to travel through time here, starting in 1998 and bringing you right up to 2010 with a series of reports from the San Francisco area.  Today, we go into the Wayback Machine for our first trip on a plane with Tim's power chair.  Remember the time frame when you see prices and business names...both might have disappeared since then.  The World Wide Web was in its infancy, digital cameras had yet to be invented (so the pictures below were scanned), and Tim was 10 years old.  We're off to the City by The Bay...

Give me a cheap fare to San Francisco...and I'm there!

Surfing on the 'net one day before Christmas, I noticed some cheap fares advertised on the Southwest Airlines I page. Your webmasters, being the intrepid travelers that we are, couldn't pass this opportunity by.

Burbank airport, old and small, was as good as remembered with no crowding and close in gates. They did move the long term parking out of the airport though...the old lot was given to the valet service. Now you must park a few blocks away. Thumbs up to the airport with another thumbs down to the parking.

Southwest gave us a superb flight that was right on time with great service. The seats were comfortable, the staff was friendly and helpful. We were even treated to a song before takeoff by one of the flight attendants (good singer too!). Southwest gets a big thumbs up!

Oakland Airport bills itself as the shortcut to San Francisco and many travel writers have said that you will arrive quicker in San Francisco if you fly to Oakland instead of SFO. I have to agree, it is faster during busy times (beginning and end of the week) but on regular weekdays it'd probably be just as fast at SFO. The fares to Oakland to tend to be lower though.

Oakland airport is very easy to navigate around and is much smaller than SFO. Access to public transportation is very easy. Oakland airport gets a thumbs up.

Transportation to our motel was via Bayporter Express shuttle. This is your typical airport shuttle service, a la Supershuttle, and they have one wheelchair accessible van in their fleet. There is also public transportation available via AirBART bus to the local BART station, BART to downtown SF, and then MUNI bus transportation to our motel.

Not wanting to deal with a lot of transfers and also with the unknown (this was our first time flying here via the Oakland airport and with the electric wheelchair), we opted for Bayporter, even though it was a $18 premium over public transit, because we wanted to minimize the amount of surprises that would await us.

Although the wheelchair ramp was not working at first, the driver fixed it promptly and we were on our way. The ride was smooth, uneventful, and fast with only about a 15 minute wait for the van when we arrived. We give Bayporter a thumbs up.

After stowing our bags at our motel, lunch was the first order of the day. We hopped on MUNI's #19 line (Polk Street) and headed south.

One of our main objectives on vacation is to find good food.  Letty is a big fan of the cookbooks put out by the California Culinary Academy which just so happens to be located in Baghdad by the Bay! What's even better for us budget-conscious travelers is that the academy runs a gourmet restaurant (staffed by students and instructors) where a truly first class meal can be had at coffee shop prices...except on Fridays (like the day we were there).

On Fridays the CCA features the Grand Buffet. Now there are buffets and then there is the Grand Buffet. Here, the CCA puts out a spread of some of its more famous signature dishes. Roasted leg of lamb, grilled halibut, polenta with bleu cheese, chicken with cranberry bean sauce, and eggplant Parmesan are just some of the hot entrees to choose from.

To start off, you have a freshly tossed salad, fresh sushi, a large selection of hard meats and cheese and more. To end your meal there is a desert bar with such pastries as chocolate decadence, pound cake, napoleons, and cheesecake.

All this takes place in an old refurbished theater with 80 foot ceilings surrounded by the kitchens of the CCA (all have big viewing windows so you can see America's future culinary superstars at work). All in all a marvelous meal.

Now the downside to the CCA. While every other day you can get a good meal here for less than $10, on Friday's the buffet will set you back $20 per person plus drinks. While worth it for the meal you get, $70 for lunch (for three people) is a budget buster on a trip. Even with the price, though, CCA gets a thumbs up for some really great food in a unique atmosphere.

After lunch we hopped back on the 19 bus, this time going north, to Ghiradelli Square. From there it's a short walk to Fisherman's Wharf and pier 41. We'd been to Fisherman's Wharf and it's too touristy for us but you must come here to get on the boat to Alcatraz Island.

Tim has never been to Alcatraz and had his curiosity piqued after watching the movie "The Rock" so it seemed like a good time to take him. Our plan was to head up here after lunch and, if tickets were available, catch to boat over and spend the afternoon there. Unfortunately, the last boat was sold out so we bought tickets for the next day and continued on. As a side note here, we just missed the last boat on February 28 and prices were increased on March 1 so we got to pay extra too!


While we were in the area with nothing to do, we went to the Maritime museum which is just on the other side of Fisherman's Wharf from pier 41 (about a 3 block walk). This worthwhile stop has several historic ships on display including a couple of old schooners, tug boats and the Eureka, an old wooden railroad and car ferry.

The Eureka was the highlight of the day for Tim. We are all were fans of the Don Johnson show, Nash Bridges, which in large part is was filmed on this ferry. The set of Nash Bridges was intact on the ferry when we visited. The security guard was in his last day of employment in the production company and was in a particularly generous mood.

The guard allowed Tim to go onto the set and look around. He also provided us with many pages of script changes that were faxed to Don Johnson on the set and also gave us some official Nash Bridges yellow police tape. Check out this picture (above) of Tim taken on the set.

The ship itself is pretty remarkable with its 4 story boiler and side paddle wheels. It's amazing to think that this is how people crossed the bay before there were any bridges here.

Another very interesting vessel here is the San Francisco Ark, an old Sausalito houseboat restored for the museum. People used these houseboats (and still do) as floating weekend getaways from the city. The Maritime museum gets a thumbs up as well.

After the museum we walked back to Aquatic Park to watch the cable car turntable in action. We tried to go to the Buena Vista for an Irish coffee, but it was just too crowded to get in. After a stroll through the shops at Ghiradelli Square, we wandered back to the motel where we had still yet to see our room (we had just dropped off the bags earlier).

Lodging was at the Travelodge by the Bay and our room with 2 queen sized beds was nicely adequate and just roomy enough. We had gotten the room through Central Reservations (800-677-1500) for an unbelievable price of $59 plus tax. That's dirt cheap in SF! I was glad we did because the front desk was quoting arriving guests a price of $95 for singles.

The motel was centrally located on Lombard Street, just off the corner of Van Ness, in the Marina District. It can be noisy, thankfully we had quiet neighbors. You can hear everybody else's TV around you. There was also a very bright light just outside our door that streamed into our room. We did get a good night sleep and rate this motel well. We've had much worse here before. TL by the Bay gets a thumbs up this time, but we would like to have had a switch for the %#!$ light!

For dinner we headed down Chestnut Street (one block north of Lombard). The business district is about a 1/2 mile walk from our motel.

Tim let us know in no uncertain terms that he wouldn't eat any Chinese food on this trip except for rice (as he’s grown up, so has his tastes. Tim is no longer adverse to Chinese or just about any other ethnic food – Ed). To keep the peace, while we had hoped to get some of the city's great Chinese food this trip, we went looking for something else. We ended up at one of Village Pizzeria's branches on Steiner at Chestnut. Village Pizza is our favorite pizza in San Francisco so we knew we'd like that.

Village Pizza didn't disappoint. Letty had a very good baked rigatoni dish while Tim and I had a delicious pepperoni pizza. One thing they do here that is neat is they give the kids some raw pizza dough to play with to pass time until the food arrives like play-dough. Tim had a lot of fun trying to mold his into as many shapes as he could.

We were able to make small talk with some other diners and the staff here who were all very friendly. About halfway through dinner, the street outside became full of bicycles. Not just a few, but thousands!

For a good 20 minutes, masses of bike riders filled the street, shouting and laughing as they rode by, followed by a SFPD escort. We found out that this is Critical Mass, a demonstration conducted by bay area riders on the last Friday of each month to promote bike riding as an alternative means of commuting.

They start at the ferry building at the end of Market Street and ride to the Golden Gate Bridge filling the streets as they go. Later on the news we learned that many drivers hate this (although the bikes have as much right to use the road as the cars - but they should also obey the laws and not get in the way unecessarily) and that's why the SFPD provides escort for safety. We didn't see any hateful drivers in our area though.

With a liter of Cabernet to wash down our dinner, we had a great time here and decided to call it a night. Village Pizza gets a big thumbs up.


Day Two of our trip started with breakfast. Cafe Caravan, one block north of our motel at Chestnut and Van Ness, provided the start for our day. Breakfast was good in this very small hole in the wall. I had sausage and eggs, Letty had an omelet, and Tim had some pancakes. The coffee was delicious, and everything on our plates was delicious. Cafe Caravan gets a thumbs up.


We had a morning to kill before our boat to Alcatraz left (at 12:45pm) so we decided to spend it by going over to the Cable Car Barn on Washington Street. This is one area of the city that is not real well served by accessible transportation...everyone else can get there via cable we ended up walking here, about 1 1/2 miles. It didn't look bad on the map but that doesn't show all the hills there.

After getting a good dose of exercise, we made it to the barn. This is where the machinery that runs the entire cable car system is located. You can watch the cables go through their various pulleys and wheels on the way to their journey underneath the streets. The cable cars operated by clamping onto these cables and being pulled along their routes.

The displays here are interesting as are some of the old historic cars located here. Any museum that can hold a kid's interest, as this one does, gets a thumbs up from us. A big thumbs down though to Muni for not providing adequate transportation to its own museum. A good gift shop sells some great souvenirs here.

After awhile here, it was time to start heading over to pier 41 to catch our boat to Alcatraz. We walked over to Columbus and Jackson (about 6 blocks from the Cable Car Barn) to catch Muni's #15 bus to Fisherman's Wharf. In between, we waded through the very crowded bustle of Chinatown where some sort of protest was going on. We never found out what it was about (all the signs and pamphlets were in Chinese).

We made it to Fisherman's Wharf at 11:30am, which gave us enough time to buy a lunch to take with us. Tim was having fast-food withdrawal pains so he had an early lunch of a cheeseburger and fries at the Burger King located in the mall at 350 Bay Street. In that mall there was also a Safeway with a deli where Letty and I picked up a couple of hoagies to go.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we end up on "The Rock"...

Copyright 1998 - Darryl Musick

Sunday, September 12, 2010

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Weekend Barbecue Tips

Today on The Cocktail Hour, we come back from our little summer hiatus with something a little different. Instead of a drink recipe or a drinking field trip, we’ll be talking about that great summer drinking activity, barbecuing, so put a couple of cold, refreshing brews on ice and join us on the patio (see the video for an example of the brews we’re having).
Watch the Video!

For our barbecue, we like to use a kettle grill such as a Weber because of the even heat distribution. And, yes, I’m going to call it barbecuing even though it’s kind of a mix of grilling and barbecuing that we do.

To start, I like to use a chimney charcoal starter. First, because it eliminated any flavor from lighter fluid; second, it’s better for the air especially in a place like here in the smoggy L.A. basin; and third, because it lets me play with fire. Take some old paper like newsprint, wrapping paper, or old utility bills and crinkle them up loosely in the bottom of the chimney. Fill the top with charcoal and light the paper.

When the charcoal is ready, pour into one side of your barbecue. Spread it out evenly but keep it to one half of the grill only. Put the grilling grate on and let heat up for a few minutes.

Once the grate has had a few minutes to heat up, clean it by scraping with a wire barbecue cleaning brush.

Season your meat to your liking and put on the side of the grill with the coals. Sear for 2-3 minutes a side and then move the meat to the other side of the grill. Cover with the lid…make sure the vent holes are open…and cook on each side. A one inch thick steak would go for about 6 minutes per side; thick pork about 10-12 minutes per side; chicken about 8 minutes per side. Thin steaks, like flank steak, about 3-4 minutes per side.

For a side dish, cut up some veggies. Salt them and wrap up loosely in foil. Put them on the non-coal side of the grate for the entire time you cook. Corn on the cob can just be laid as-is on the same non-coal side for the entire cooking time as well.

That’s it! Have fun, be careful, and enjoy the food and drink.

Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

TRANSIT REPORT: San Francisco, California

San Francisco is California’s most transit oriented city. It’s the nerve center of Northern California and many regional transportation systems converge here. The city itself is served mainly by Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railroad) and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) with robust commuter rail service provided by CalTrain. Regional operators Golden Gate Transit and AC Transit also provide bus service into the city from points beyond. A number of ferry operators also provide commuter service across the bay into San Francisco proper. More than a dozen different operators and agencies also provide bus and rail service outside of the city to points around the bay.

MUNI - The city’s main transit provider runs a system of buses, trolleys, and cable cars.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Steve Morgan under CC-BY-SA license

BUSES – Buses run just about everywhere in the city and it seems like you’re never more than a block or two from a line. There are regular fuel powered buses along with overhead wire electrified trolley buses. All vehicles in the MUNI bus fleet are now accessible. Click the following link for a route map.

Bus fares are $2, $0.75 for disabled and seniors. Transfers are free and can be used for two more trip, including returning to your original destination as long as you do it before it expires (90 minutes from original issue).

TROLLEYS – The trolley system here (not to be confused with the cable cars) runs down Market Street underground and to points beyond above ground. Historic trolleys…using restored antique trolley cars from around the world…run above ground on Market Street continuing on to Fisherman’s Wharf. All stations along Market Street are wheelchair accessible, both above and below ground. The historic streetcars are mostly accessible and stops either have ramps or embedded lifts that will raise your wheelchair up to door level when the car approaches. The T line is completely accessible, the J, K, L, M, and N lines are wheelchair accessible at designated stops only. See this link for a list and compare with this route map to see if your destination is served. If it can’t be done by trolley, chances are you can do it via the bus system.

Trolley fares are the same as the bus fares.

CABLE CARS – These are rolling historical landmarks and are not wheelchair accessible. If you do want to ride one, you’ll need to leave your chair behind. If you can walk a little bit, you can probably board. The cost is $5.

Visitors can purchase 1, 3, and 7 day passes that are good for unlimited rides on the entire system, including cable cars. The costs are $13, $20, and $26 respectively and are sold at various outlets throughout the city and the airport. Click the link to find sales locations.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis under CC-BY-SA license

BART is a heavy-rail system that works as commuter rail from points in the East Bay and the airport. It runs as a subway under Market Street. All lines converge here from Millbrae and the airport in the south and Fremont, Dublin/Pleasanton, Pittsburgh, and Richmond in the East Bay. The complete system and all stations are wheelchair accessible. Fares are distance based and run from $1.75 to $7.05 one way.

One word of concern about MUNI and BART – our experience with several of their station employees and drivers were the worst encounters we’ve ever had from transit employees that included being yelled at for a) asking a question, b) going the wrong way, and c) not knowing the name of the stop we wanted to get off at. Be prepared, they may get you where you’re going but not always with a smile.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia
Chris Enright under CC-BY-SA license

CALTRAIN is a commuter rail line that runs along the West Bay peninsula from San Jose, and Gilroy just a little bit, to the San Francisco station just a few blocks south of Market Street. There are stations along the way in places like Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City, San Mateo, and South San Francisco. The passenger cars are double-deckers with wheelchairs riding on the bottom level. Each station has a wheelchair ramp built into the platform, chair users should wait on top to board the train…the conductor will deploy a ramp to get you in. Fares are distance based from a low of $2.50 one-way for one zone to a high of $11.25 for six zones. A day pass is available for twice the amount of a one-way ticket, disabled and senior riders pay half price.

FERRIES are operated by several companies and cruise into the city from Alameda, Oakland, Vallejo, Tiburon, and Sausalito. Fares start at $6.50 and disabled are half-price. All are wheelchair accessible.

AC Transit runs buses from Oakland and the East Bay and Golden Gate Transit from Marin County. All buses are wheelchair accessible.

A multitude of agencies run buses, trains, and ferries to other parts of the bay area that don’t come into San Francisco. For complete information about these agencies, plus the ferries and commuter buses, go to for complete transit information for the area.

San Francisco is one of the world’s premiere travel destinations and is very easy to see in a wheelchair. Have fun.

Copyright 2010 – Darryl Musick